My apologies. This was supposed to be posted before my previous devotional, so they are coming out of order. I’ll re-post the last one tomorrow so that you can see them in order. — Micah
I continue to look at prayers that have pulled me through hard times in my life, which I find also help people I work with now as a chaplain and in the past as a pastor. I am particularly focusing on prayers that are important in the community of faith in which I find myself – the United Church of Christ – because I am increasingly convinced that as meaningful and important as individual prayers of the heart can be for connecting one with God, in our times of trauma, shock, and loss, often it is within the shared support of the community that we are given the strength to turn our groans, wordless cries, and pain into real words of prayer.
I remember right after my late wife’s first really huge neurological event, after I had spent some weeks having to before and after work play nurse-maid with her as she had so much she could not do for herself and having witnessed this once articulate woman struggling to find words for basic things in her aphasia, once she finally regained the strength and confidence to go to church visiting the church I attend now, the United Church of Chapel Hill. I did not come from a tradition with a lot of repeated prepared prayers from tradition in our liturgy. This church, like many Congregationalist churches, includes the Gloria, the Lord’s Prayer, the Doxology, and other regular prayers recited together every week. I remember the comfort I found in having words given to me, words others had said for ages. My heart was crying out in deep unspeakable despair to God as I saw the dearest love of my life seeming to fade away from me before my eyes – something two years later she in fact did do after a short period of recovery – and the life I’ve built come crumbling around me. I needed to talk to God. But my own words would not come. Joining in those prepared words of community prayer gave me an anchor each Sunday to not be blown away by the wind of pain, trauma, and change. For just a moment I could stand, be still, and know that I was held.
And so I am focusing on the prayers in this beautiful yet open tradition in which I find myself. I hope for some of you it will help you consider the prayers and practices that buoy you through life’s storms in your own tradition of faith.
Most of what I have looked at are prayers in the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship, but I want to consider in this post and a few that follow, a prayer penned by a leading United Church of Christ minister in the last century which has become a place many turn in every Christian denomination, and in fact people seeking spirituality and meaning outside organized religion. This is the Serenity Prayer of Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr. In its shortened form – just three lines of the prayer – it has become the central maxim of the 12-step movement, a spirituality movement focused on recovery from addiction and other issues, which has come to bring help and healing to folks beyond the bounds of denomination and creed. I use this prayer every day as a breath prayer during my workout at the gym and often as a breath during my drive between hospital visits. But in the interest of considering the full depth of this prayer as Niebuhr intended it, I am going to look at the full prayer:
“GOD, grant me the serenity
to accept the things
I cannot change,
“Courage to change the
things I can, and the
wisdom to know the difference.
“Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardship as the
pathway to peace.
“Taking, as He did, this
sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it.
“Trusting that He will make
all things right if I
surrender to His Will;
“That I may be reasonably happy
in this life, and supremely
happy with Him forever in
As I reflect on the way this prayer affects my own journey of faith through difficult times, I realize this prayer deserves more than one post. I will probably have to engage it in several different entries in order to do it justice.
First I note the universality of the prayer. Though the last several lines about Jesus are very much Christian, showing the origin of this prayer in an expression of Christian spirituality, the form most know summed up in the first few sentences, transcends faith. People of every conceivable religious background use these words to center themselves, to become grounded in whatever they consider that place of peace in the core of their lives, every day through 12 step programs. People who are Jewish say these words. People who are Christian. Who are Hindu. Who are Muslim or Buddhist. People with no organized religion to speak of, yet yearning to drink deep of that which is healing and true. This reality – that there is prayer here which can draw together people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, faiths, and sexualities as one family on this earth is an astounding thing.
To me it speaks directly to the experience of grief and trauma. A dear friend who is working on her seminary education after serving many years as a domestic violence counselor and I were talking earlier this year. She shared with me her frustration that so many of her fellow students really were buying into language of exclusion in the Scripture, as if that was God’s final word to us. “Don’t they realize”, she said to me in exasperation, “that the Bible came out of an experience of being traumatized and seeking wholeness?” Then she began to extrapolate out ways in which the choice to embrace language of exclusion got people – and at points, the church as a whole – stuck and cut off from the healing that is possible. Her point of course is that when traumatized, it is natural to put up some walls and to pull back. It is natural to want to pull in our yourself like a turtle into its shell. Sometimes it is necessary. When facing physical abuse every single day, one has to do what one must in order not to become paralyzed by the pain and unable to function. The pulling back from threat can be a great gift to one’s self and even the numbness our bodies produce can in the short term give us protection. One can read the language of exclusion in our Scripture texts as just such a reaction. Israel is being exiled, persecuted, and mistreated for its way of life. Out of that experience comes the beautiful moving, truth-telling, words of the prophets, sages, and story-tellers of the Hebrew Scriptures some Christians call the Old Testament. But in reaction to such abuse, as a way of defending their own sense of identity, these same holy women and holy men also use language that at times marginalizes the other, especially people of other faiths, in ways that when taken out of context can be used to say no, we are not one people, we are not one family as human beings. There is us and there is them.
This too happens even in the New Testament. Traumatized by the death of Jesus, by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, by Nero’s persecution of Christians and other small local ones, by Christian expulsion from synagogues, there is a sense of putting up walls both in parts of the New Testament and definitely the writings of the later early church. Some of it is necessary: they did not need people sneaking in to drag them all away from their secret houses of worship to be killed. Some of this was a healthy, natural response to threat. But any healthy natural response to threat can go too far. For the heart of the Christian message is that God in Christ has included us all, every single person. That we are in some mysterious way all one in God. And that the table that brings life is open to every person.
My friend’s point of course, is that the direction God is pushing us toward in Scripture and the Christian life is beyond the need for such firm boundaries. Healing from trauma, loss, and grief comes as we are able to begin to open up to others, to see the world around us as not threat but, though it includes some danger, also full of promise.
I remember myself, from mildly traumatic experiences of my childhood, discovering in therapy that a part of me truly believes that when change comes – whether change in relationships, work, uncertainty – it means there is something bad around the corner. And realizing if that is what I expect, it is what I will find. It is a recipe for creating my own disasters, heartache, and pain. But in reality around every corner there is both much bad and much good. To be healthy I need to be able to embrace both as a part of my experience. When I do so I can be present in this moment, neither rushing around the corner to see what good may come nor steeling up against imagined threats coming way. For more learning to do this was hard but not insurmountable. For some the traumas are so deep that it takes much, much work with therapy and they may never totally get past this gripping fear. Yet they can learn to become more open to life.
This connects with the work I do as chaplain and my experience as one grieving great loss.
As a chaplain I have been touched to see how people who seem to have nothing else in common, in the experience of grief find commonality. They may disagree about politics, have different religions, have different ways their families are structured, be of different classes. But the trauma and pain of loss and illness rattles their cages in ways they are exposed to their own humanity and can see it in others. As addiction does this to those in 12 step spirituality, so the experience of loss, illness, and trauma can if we let it, open us up to others whom we would overlook as fellow pilgrims on this journey.
In my own experience of loss recently at the death of my late wife, I found this to be true too. I found my heart opening to people I would not expect in ways I would not have imagined. There are relationships in which this has been healing and new friendships I did not expect. By facing into our pain, we open ourselves up to that pain becoming a bridge across which our hearts can meet other hearts as friends, fellow pilgrims, and children of the world.
I saw this too in my social justice work as a pastor in the queer community who happened to be straight himself. In working with queer people I discovered how like me their own needs, fears, hopes, and concerns were. I often say I learned more about how to be a husband to my late wife from many gay men and lesbian women in their relationships that could not be called marriage until very recently according to the law than I did from many straight role models. I also found that though I did the work speaking up for inclusion and equal rights as a Christian minister, deeply committed to my own faith, that common desire for equality, fairness, and justice, went beyond the bounds of religion. Standing side by side with me and my church was a rabbi, were strident secular humanists, were Wiccans, were Quakers, were people of all kinds of faith and none at all. I found the same Sacred fire that burned in me heart, teaching me compassion, calling me to set right what was broken in the world, alight in each of their hearts though they called that source of passion by many different names than me and many thought it had nothing to do with God & faith at all. The common experience of discrimination and crying out for justice unite us, helping us discover the shared beauty and humanity we all have.
I know in this post I have not yet spoken to the actual words of this prayer, but I think the way it pictures how certain practices, dispositions of mind, and attitudes can allow our experience of great pain to not isolate us but invite us into deeper community and connection with others, is just as important as the words themselves.
I have had so many patients as a chaplain and parishioners as a pastor say to me “without this or that person I could not face what I have” to know that such connection is life-giving whether you view it as spiritual or not. And as a person of faith who believes strongly that everything is endowed with Spirit as sure as light falls from the sky, I cannot but think of such process as the working of the mothering Holy Spirit in whom we all live, move, and have our being like a growing child lives, moves, and has her being in the womb of her mother until birthing day.
In my own life I found when the world apart around me, when all I thought I lived for came crashing down as in fire, on the day I found my late wife lying unable to breathe, it is that community that chose to not just give me tried sayings or expressions of pity but who truly connecting with me, making room for me in their life, and room for my pain in their heart, that gave me life. Many a day I said to myself “I cannot feel or see God here. But I look up and I see them. And that is enough”.
Friend, whatever pain you face, know you don’t have to face it alone. And if you are in the life of one hurting, open your heart and life for them.
What’s more, whatever you faith, realize the goal is not exclusion – which is at heart the expression of grief, fear, in the face of trauma – the goal is healing which builds bridges across every barrier. Let us embrace the healing in our faiths and on our journeys.
In closing I want to share the music of Bob Marley, which I think reflects the reconciling hope of this prayer:
Your progressive redneck preacher,